Rights of Nature: An Indigenous Idea

The Rights of Nature concept is an organic outgrowth of the reality that Earth and its many creatures and elements are inextricably connected.

If an inanimate, self-serving, monopolistic behemoth like Amazon Inc. can be armed with the legally enforceable rights of a human being, how much more deserving is the Amazon River, which abounds with real life and serves the common good? The Rights of Nature movement is ascending specifically because the existing system — which regularly allows corporate lobbyists, politicians and big donors to undermine, evade and mock environmental laws and regs — simply doesn’t work.

As Mike Roth, a leading clean water advocate in Florida, puts it:

As we watch developers … (pave) lands with impervious concrete, as we see our springs turn green and our rivers turn lifeless and our wells dry up, we have tried it all. We have called our water management districts and other “protection” agencies, called our representatives, written letters, signed petitions, marched and pleaded — everything the law “allows” us to do … (Yet,) we see continued granting of water withdrawal permits and allowing of excessive fertilizer and other chemical uses … and mining permits handed out like candy on Halloween … Thus began a movement to give rights to nature.

The demand that nature have a seat at society’s governing table sparks panic in corporate boardrooms. But this concept is centuries old and widely practiced among some of the most experienced environmental stewards in our country: Indigenous Americans.

Despite the long effort by Anglos to exterminate them, Native People and their concepts have endured and are regaining strength, in large part because they connect to the whole family of life. The fundamental worldviews of practically all of the 574 tribes recognized by Washington embrace both a spiritual and symbiotic kinship with their ecosystems. Tribal decisions, then, are not just left to monetary interests, but must include meaningful “consultations” with the land, water, habitat and future generations.

In recent years, multinational extractive corporations such as pipeline builders, frackers and mining operators have intruded ever more arrogantly and forcefully into tribal rights, waters and lands. In response, leaders of these sovereign peoples have increasingly been codifying their traditional practice of protecting these resources by enacting their own Rights of Nature laws.

For example, three years ago, the Ojibwe people — centered around White Earth, Minnesota — recognized the right of wild rice “to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.” And not just the wild rice plants, but the fresh water resources and habitats that sustain them. More than a nutritional and economic mainstay, “Wild rice is the most important cultural aspect of our livelihood,” says tribal attorney Frank Bibeau. “Our migration path took us here to the Great Lakes, where the food grows on the water. If we can protect the water, then we’re probably protecting everything else.”

The Rights of Nature concept is an organic outgrowth of the reality that Earth and its many creatures and elements are inextricably connected, so the approach considers the well-being of the whole. For example, under an 1837 treaty with Washington, the Ojibwe Nation governs wild rice (“manoomin,” or “good berry” in Ojibwe) in its territorial waters. But that water is not separated from adjacent waterflows damaged by industry or from contaminants running from adjacent lands. Rights of Nature lets the plants “speak” about their right to live and thrive in systems not artificially bounded by human-defined territories.

That premise is the basis of the Ojibwe’s ongoing legal case against the State of Minnesota, which proposes letting Canadian oil giant Enbridge pump out 5 billion gallons of groundwater so it can build its “Line 3” oil pipeline through the region. This landmark case names wild rice itself as a plaintiff, claiming the pipeline scheme drains the marsh grass ecosystem and damages its right to live. The state tried to dismiss the case, but the court ruled in August that manoomin has standing under tribal law and that “the Band is exercising its inherent authority to protect a necessary and vital resource.”

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe sells the hand-harvested wild rice. To learn more and get a taste of what they are fighting to protect, visit whiteearth.com.

Jim Hightower